A Little Human Magic in Recent DVDs

Popular culture operates in trends. Sometimes the trends are by design; a chance to cash in and capitalize on a successful entry, much like the latest vampire craze is largely traced back to the “Twilight” saga. Other times, trends just sort of spring forth and emerge as part of a larger picture – like when several disaster movies come out all at once.

Such a trend emerged for me during a weekend viewing of DVDs: the magic of the human condition. I may be reading too much into it. Perhaps these caught me at just the right sentimental time on a cold day spent indoors. Then again, maybe there is something to these four seemingly unrelated pop culture entries that all seem to reflect that when the spirit needs to, it’s capable of being magical.

DVD: Glee: Season 1, Vol. 1 – Road to Sectionals

TV Show: Glee

Network: Fox

Cast: Matthew Morrison, Jane Lynch

Release Date: 2009-12-29

Distributor: Fox

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/s/sagaes-glee-cvr.jpgGlee: Season 1, Vol. 1 – Road to Sectionals

When I first heard about this new show by Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy that focused on a high school show choir and featured musical numbers, I was convinced it was the Fox network’s attempt to fictionalize American Idol. I was even a hold out when friends and colleagues fell in love with it.

Now, with the first volume of the debut season on DVD, I’ve become glued to Glee. I’m probably the last person to acknowledge this, but the title of the show is completely apt as it follows a band of misfit stereotypes (who somehow avoid being total clichés) who simply want to excel, and the coach who is trying to re-discover joy in his life. Even with the interference of the fantastic villainess cheerleader coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), the show is inspiring without being treacly. Over the course of the 13 episodes from the first half of the season (it returns April 13), the plot interweaves the lives of supporting characters as the club works towards the sectional competitions. And although the lead characters are football crooner Finn (Cory Monteith) and fame-obsessed Rachel (Lea Michele), everyone gets time to shine.

The DVD extras aren’t great, but they’ll do. Included are some fun video diaries of the cast, and fun facts, a ho-hum video of the club singing Queen’s “Somebody to Love”, and a Welcome to McKinley featurette starring Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba). Still, it’s the episodes, not the extras, that make this DVD set worth it watching — not to mention the irrepressible feeling of glee when you see the cast sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” or “Rehab”.

DVD: 9

Film: 9

Director: Shane Acker

Cast:Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly

Release Date: 2009-12-29

Distributor: Universal

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/s/sagers-9-cover.jpg9

So 9 is not about humans, per se, and it takes place in a bleak post-apocalyptic setting, but at its core is still a CG-animated story about human endurance and the nearly magical resilience of the spirit. In a world where the machines rise up and destroy humanity – a scenario right behind zombies on my list of likely end-of-world possibilities – only nine sentient stitched-together ragdolls carry on as mankind’s last remnants. After their leader 1 (voiced by Christopher Plummer) is captured, the other seven led by 9 (Elijah Wood) must cooperate to save him.

Despite the bloodless, inventive violence of the machines and the burnt-out darkness of the landscape, 9 shines with characters that each reflect human attributes like creativity, ingenuity, courage, physical prowess, a sense of history and artistic inclination. Produced by Tim Burton, and directed by Shane Acker (based on his own student film short), the world without man in 9 looks great. The dialogue falls flat at times, the overall plot is a little weak once you get beyond the initial premise, and the reminder on the DVD packaging to buy the Blu-ray version instead is just uncool.

Also, aside from the original short, and The Look of 9 featurette that explores the steampunk visuals of the world, there’s nothing extra special on the DVD. Still, 9 is a fairly creative take on post-Homo sapien humanity and makes a fun double feature with WALL-E.

DVD: Superman: The Complete Animated Series

TV Show: Superman

Release Date: 2009-11-24

Distributor: Warner

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/s/sagers-supermancvr.jpg

Superman: The Complete Animated Series

Superman has always represented the ideal human, not just physically but in spirit. After all, even his name suggests he’d the pinnacle to strive for. At his best, Superman’s adventures aren’t only about foiling Lex Luthor, defeating super-powered criminals with kryptonite hearts or repelling meteors hurdling towards Earth. Sure, that part is fun, but Superman is the ultimate immigrant who wants to contribute to his new home, and really do something for his fellow man.

Outside of the comics, Superman has often been underserved by his portrayal in popular culture. But in this seven-disc collection of the series that compiles 54 episodes of the show which ran from 1996 until 2000, Superman exists in the bright and cheerful world of Metropolis. His character has room to breathe, and the production team – lead by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm – give the Man of Steel’s universe updates and additions while honoring the mythology. Different from the also excellent Batman: The Animated Serie,” which was grounded in reality, Superman: The Complete Animated Series is grand in scope and full of spectacle. The animation in the series is the best Supes has ever seen, and the vocal talent (led by Clancy Brown as Lex, Tim Daly as Clark Kent/Superman, Dana Delaney as Lois Lane) makes the entire affair seem alive.

Most of the extras included are re-packaged from previous season sets, including featurettes such as Building the Mythology: Superman’s Supporting Cast and a pop-up trivia track. Yet the new mini-doc, The Despot Darkseid: A Villain Worthy of Superman is a very cool exploration of Superman’s cosmic big baddie who really gave this series dramatic chops. This 17-minute inclusion makes the dearth of other new extras almost excusable.

DVD: (500) Days of Summer [Blu-ray]

Film: (500) Days of Summer

Director: Marc Webb

Cast: Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Release Date: 2009-12-22

Distributor: Fox

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/s/sagers-500dayscvr.jpg

(500) Days of Summer

Director Marc Webb’s romantic-comedy-drama is painful at times, twee at other times and completely charming the entire time. The film is an honest story about a relationship between two young lovers, Summer and Tom (Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and it nails the depiction of the in-between, smaller moments of a romance. Much like life and relationships, the movie is difficult to define, and it’s not just because of the nonlinear narrative format.

Instead of simply slipping into a romantic comedy formula, Webb (the newly announced director of the Spider-Man reboot) thinks enough of the viewer to give them a story with complexity. (500) Days is sexy, fun and pure ebullience.

More than any other entry here, it is about the magic of the human spirit but honest enough to show that that magic can suck pretty hard at times.The Blu-ray version of the film comes pretty loaded with a digital copy, audition tapes, music videos and a cool conversation between the characters as Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. The audio commentary is actually fun and informative but noticeably lacking Deschanel’s voice. Still, if it’s the magic of the human condition you’re looking for (500) Days is one to own.